Politics and humour: Is Alistair Beaton Britain's greatest living satirist?

Yesterday, award-winning playwright Alistair Beaton unveiled his latest project - a play about a retired Tony Blair facing an international war crimes tribunal. Ciar Byrne looks at the work of a man who can't resist poking fun at the Prime Minister
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Indy Politics

From its unelected advisers to its unseemly sex scandals, New Labour has provided a rich vein of material for Alistair Beaton, who commands a reputation as one of television's most powerful political satirists. But now Beaton is preparing to tackle the man at the centre of it all. He is writing a comic drama about what might happen when Tony Blair retires and is faced with the prospect of being tried for international war crimes.

It is only recently that Beaton has been popularly acclaimed as one of television's finest talents, despite the critical plaudits heaped on his award-winning 2001 play Feelgood, a wry look at New Labour spin which transferred to the West End. One of the co-founders of Not The Nine O' Clock News, he also wrote gags for the newsroom sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey and concocted funny songs for Spitting Image, but never enjoyed the profile of, say, Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies or Stephen Poliakoff.

Then last week, the Broadcasting Press Guild crowned A Very Social Secretary, his humorous take on David Blunkett's affair with Kimberley Quinn and the subsequent political fall-out, the best single drama of 2005.

Now the digital channel More4, an offshoot of Channel4, which showed the Blunkett drama on its launch night last November, has recommissioned Beaton and the production company Mentorn to make the film about Blair post-Downing Street. It hopes the satirist can repeat his success with a similarly vaudeville glance into the Prime Minister's future.

Robert Lindsay, who played Blair in A Very Social Secretary, is expected to reprise the role, taking centre stage in a probing examination of the gap between the Prime Minister's perception of himself and how he is viewed in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Other members of the cast of A Very Social Secretary, including the Lord of the Rings actor Bernard Hill, who played Blunkett, are also likely to appear in the film, which starts shooting in July and will be shown on More4 in the autumn.

Switching the focus to Blair is a natural progression for Beaton, an erstwhile supporter of New Labour who has become increasingly disillusioned by both the war in Iraq and the controversy over loans and honours.

In 2001, when Labour had been in government for four years, Beaton's play Feelgood reflected his growing unease with the culture of spin. Set in a grand hotel in party conference season, on the eve of a Labour Prime Minister's speech, the play centres on a bullying press secretary clearly modelled on Alastair Campbell and the PM's speechwriter and chief of staff as they try to avert a GM crop scandal. Five years on, the subject matter seems rather tame in the wake of the war on terror and the peerages-for-loans scandal.

David Aukin, head of drama at Mentorn, says he commissioned Beaton to write the new drama after reading the lawyer Philippe Sands' critique of Blair's foreign policy, Lawless World. As a result, the television play is likely to include scenes in which the fictional Blair faces trial for international war crimes, in a sequence reminiscent of General Pinochet's house arrest in Britain, which was recently dramatised by BBC4.

"Nowadays, no politician who has stepped down from office can avoid responsibility for their actions in office. I think that's a real sea change," explained Aukin. "It's a starting point for Alistair to be able to deal with the whole issue of Blair's obsession with his legacy, what that means and how that plays itself out after he retires."

Although Beaton is dealing with weighty subjects, Aukin believes he can be relied upon to apply the same light touch to an ex-prime minister as he did in A Very Social Secretary.

In one scene in the Blunkett drama, Blair and his wife, played by Doon Mackichan, are seen discussing the guest list for a weekend party at Chequers, including "Melvyn and Kate, Elton and David and Richard and Judy". In another, a fictional Carole Caplin calls the PM "Toblerone" and offers him a Reiki massage. The Blairs are also imagined holidaying at a luxurious Italian palazzo.

Blunkett failed to see the humour in the piece, threatening legal action and even mentioning the play in his resignation speech - much to Beaton's glee.

"When you talk to Alistair about politics, he's a very serious person and he has very strong, provocative and interesting views," said Aukin.

"He's an angry person too, but he's found a way of channelling his anger into humour and he's a good story teller."

Peter Dale, head of More4, agrees. "Unlike many comic writers, but like the very best satirists, he really knows his stuff. He gets incredibly close to his targets. He knows the politicians really well and he knows the world they live in. That makes his voice incredibly authentic.

"All his comedy is based around his perception of various aspects of this government, like spin, centralisation, the presidentisation of No 10 and the political party that claims to be in the centre, but is actually being centre-right."

The Glasgow-born writer has spent much of his career working in theatre and radio. He provided a series of comic sketches on party conferences for Radio 4's The World Tonight and for a brief spell he even injected some humour into Gordon Brown's speeches, in return for House of Commons No 2 whisky. The parting of the ways came when Beaton inserted a line suggesting Labour might support public sector strike action.

In 2004, Follow My Leader, Beaton's musical satire about Bush and Blair's war on terror, transferred from the Birmingham Rep to the Hampstead Theatre to mixed reviews. Putting his first-class degree in Russian and German (he has also studied at Moscow University) to good use, Beaton has also adapted Gogol's The Government Inspector for the Chichester Festival Theatre and Johann Strauss's comic opera Die Fledermaus for the D'Oyly Carte company.

Currently, he is working on King of Hearts, a play about a royal family whose constitutional crisis sparks a political crisis. It goes into rehearsal later this year.

Beaton has also produced a comic novel about a fictional US leader, Fletcher J Fletcher. Entitled A Planet For The President, it is a humorous look at the serious topic of climate change.

His varied career has made him more versatile, Peter Dale believes. "He comes without a huge television drama baggage. His experience in the theatre, speechwriting and comedy are refreshing. There's nothing worse than the dripping sore of a whining intellectual who complains. The lightness of his approach and the comic turn of his pen are really helpful.

"You don't see political comedy that much on television these days. We would do this to any government. It's that old, 'Don't let them get complacent' role that television seems to have lost. It's our job to poke fun at them."

Dale also recalls meeting Beaton to discuss the Blunkett drama. At the end of the meeting, the More4 chief offered the writer a white plastic cup full of cheap Channel 4-branded wine. "He looked at the wine and he looked at the cup and you could tell instantly he was thinking, 'This guy is serving crap here'. There was a real glint of what a sharp guy he is."

Beaton on Blair and bashing New Labour

"What's becoming increasingly fascinating and very attractive to a satirist is the huge gap between the Blair rhetoric and the Blair reality. He just chucks in a few worthy nuggets to keep the backbenchers quiet, about the need for action on climate change and other radical policies.

"He thinks that by simply talking about it, it will happen, which is not very far from a sort of madness. You could argue this is the same disease that affected Thatcher towards the end of her reign.

"Increasingly, as a satirist, you find yourself not just bashing New Labour, but trying to analyse its leader. As a satirist you have to make creative, imaginative projections as to what might be going on. It is entirely possible that Blair does not really want Brown to succeed him. Not only is he going to stay on as long as possible, he might even prefer to see New Labour lose the next election so he stands towering across the centuries as this great leader. But of course, what we are always going to remember him for is this illegal war.

"[My play] is a satirical projection into the future, but like any good piece of satire it has to be built around a grain of truth. There is a legitimate case to make that Blair is guilty of international crimes in that he launched what can be construed as a war of aggression.

"There is a sense of a potential loss-of-marbles situation. Which is quite worrying, because Tony Blair is quite an important man. On Monday, he can make a speech about climate change and on Tuesday, he can say, 'Let's have three new runways in the south of England and double air travel over the next 20 years.' There appears to be no awareness of the connection.

"Reality is always running along hot on the heels of satire and threatens sometimes to overtake it. When I voted for New Labour and Blair in 1997, I imagined all kinds of betrayals, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined that he would lead us into a war of questionable legality. The reality has become so grotesque that the satire has to be painted in bigger and brighter colours.

"The question of money does play a role in the film. Blair is in thrall to money, fame and celebrity. The desire for having enough not just to borrow Cliff Richard's house, but to have a house as good as Cliff Richard's is clearly a motivation for [Tony and Cherie]. They come over as quite a greedy pair. Too many New Labour people hang out with too many very rich people.

"Anger and outrage are at the heart of all good satire, but it has to be coupled with a desire to entertain and a desire to laugh.

"Can you change things as a satirist? You never know, but at least you are giving heart to people who share your outrage and hopefully here and there getting up the noses of the powerful."

Alistair Beaton was talking to Ciar Byrne

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